While taking a walk in Philadelphia in May 1985, Vincent Motto, then 22 years old, was identified and arrested on charges for raping a woman five months earlier. It would be ten and a half years later until DNA evidence would make him a free man again. On his experience of being the victim of false imprisonment for over a decade, Motto describes, “You’re dead but you’re still alive.”
Motto however is not eligible for reparation for the time he spent in prison because Pennsylvania is one of 28 states without a law requiring compensation for exonerated individuals. In our own Mid-Atlantic region, Maryland, Virginia, and the District of Columbia provide for compensation, while Delaware does not. In Maryland, there is no cap on monetary compensation, but in order to qualify for it, you need a pardon from the governor. Furthermore, neither Maryland nor D.C. have specific guidelines to what constitutes “fair” compensation.
Of course, there are other alternatives toward securing compensation available for individuals like Motto. For example, filing a private civil suit against the government. The players from the Duke lacrosse case have recently filed suit for their mistreatment. But, as is pointed out at the Life After Exoneration Program, “chances are your conviction, like most wrongful convictions, was not the result of prosecutorial misconduct or malicious prosecution. Even then, lawsuits take years, and you would need money to pay a lawyer.” For many exonerees, who are already struggling to find a home, a job, and to rebuild familial ties and friendships, this is simply not a viable option. An exoneree may also seek to secure an individualized compensation bill from Congress or his or her state legislature. This process, however, is highly politicized, requires having “connections” in order to lobby a legislator on your behalf, and does not guarantee fair compensation to every exoneree. The best options to guarantee a fair compensation are bills that direct a certain pre-set amount to exonerees based on factors such as their age, their earning potential, and how long they served unnecessarily in prison. Even these bills have their drawbacks. For example many such bills rely on the median state income as a basis for compensation, but this assumes that the earning potential of the exoneree would not have exceeded that amount.
Compensation for the wrongly convicted is necessary for a number of reasons. First, exonerated individuals are unlikely to have any savings and require financial support for basic necessities, such as food, clothing, housing, healthcare, etc. Second, compensation may help exonerated individuals regain lost time. Many exonerated individuals are in need of job counseling in order to rebuild their careers as well as counseling services to help them and their families cope with the stress and strain of the prison experience and sudden release. A pardon doesn’t make one’s life return to normal after years in prison, and suspicion may haunt an exoneree for the rest of his or her life. Furthermore, because they are not parolees, many exonerees do not even have access to the limited job training resources available to individuals on parole. Third, compensation can serve as public recognition on behalf of the government for the harm inflicted upon the exonerated individual. Prompt and fair compensation can accelerate the healing process.
Of the over 400 exonerees in the United States, the average time spent in prison before release is twelve years. No amount of financial compensation can ever repay what has been taken from these individuals, but it may be a start toward giving them a better future.